04 Nov AGE IS A NUMBER AND ALSO MORE THINGS
At twenty-one, I have had a relatively limited number of relationships, but enough that I’m able to identify at least a handful of patterns. For example, I like outgoing, tall, and most importantly, older men. I’ve always been clear to my girlfriends (and potential suitors) that my preference is for men who have at least a couple of years on me. This isn’t necessarily true 100% of the time. I have had two relationships with guys that were quite close in age to me, but they were relatively short and both were in high school when the dating pool was much more limited than the expansive ocean that is Kingston, Ontario.
It’s pretty typical dating advice for young women to look to guys who are older; the assumption is that they will be more mature and more ready to commit in the ways that young women are presumed to want. As long as I can remember, my mom has said that you have to subtract three years from a man’s biological age to get his mental age. While I do think there is some truth to the belief that young women mature faster than young men, I also don’t necessarily agree that ‘older men’ are all that much better than their younger counterparts. In fact, in some ways, I think that entering into relationships with significant age gaps at a young age can be damaging.
Now, when I refer to age gaps, I don’t mean decades. My own relationships with older men have had age gaps of three, four, and eight years. While eight years is significant at almost any age, the other two gaps become less significant the older that you get. The problem is that as a teenager and young woman, those are notable gaps. Twenty-four and twenty-seven might not feel that different, but seventeen and twenty do, or at least they should.
My first relationship with an older guy began when I was twelve and he was fifteen. So, a significant gap that definitely bordered on predatory. It was on and off for a number of years; eventually we were thirteen and sixteen and then sixteen and nineteen. If we were to start dating today, I don’t really think twenty-one and twenty-four would be anything to think too seriously about, but in grade seven, this guy may as well have been forty. Thankfully, I waited to have a physically sexual relationship with this person, but I still felt like I ‘lost’ something akin to what we refer to as virginity at a very young age. Thanks to our broken sex education system, most of what I initially learned about sex and sexuality was from a fifteen-year-old boy, which was not ideal.
A common thread in a lot of my relationships with older men began with that first relationship; he would tell me all the time how much older I seemed. This was something I was actually very used to hearing from adults. I was a precocious kid, so it didn’t feel like anything different than what I’d heard throughout most of my life. There is a difference between an adult telling you that you have a vocabulary or way of seeing the world that is more advanced than your peers and an older guy telling you that you might be thirteen, but you don’t look it (I did and actually still do), and you don’t act like it. The key difference is that adults who think of you as older typically tend to continue to treat you in an age-appropriate manner, while someone who is pursuing you sexually or romantically does not.
My first relationship is definitely a bit of an extreme example, but the same sorts of patterns have continued in my more ‘age-appropriate’ relationships as well. In first and second year, my boyfriend was in fourth-year and then a graduate, which seemed notable at the time, but nothing crazy. This was for the most part, a happy relationship, but like any relationship with someone that is older than you, you are often forced to deal with things that you aren’t ready for. When I should have been enjoying my first house and Stages with my girlfriends, I was helping my boyfriend find work and plan life after undergrad. These are things that myself and my peers are dealing with now in fourth year, but not things that I needed or wanted to be dealing with at nineteen.
More recently, my boyfriend was eight years my senior and that presented a whole host of other issues that at the time didn’t seem related to age, but definitely were. He was coming to terms with approaching thirty and attending a wedding literally every weekend. I was still getting carded everywhere I went and my friends couldn’t be further from being ready to get married. We had a lot of superficial things in common, but when it came to those deep commonalities that make relationships last, there was nothing. In these relationships, I consented fully and gained a lot from them. That being said, they also forced me to grow up faster than I might have liked and confront things that I wasn’t always mature enough to handle.
When someone says to you, “I know you’re twenty, but really you seem twenty-five” or “I know I’m almost thirty, but I feel twenty-one”, they’re creating an alternate reality and absolving themselves of the responsibility to treat you in an age-appropriate manner or act their own age. I certainly believe that some people mature faster than others, but also there is only so much learning and life experience that you can pack into two decades compared to what you can put in two-and-a-half or three. Contrary to Aalyiah (R. Kelly), age is a lot more than a number and those who try to undermine its significance are engaging in a form of gaslighting. I’m not saying that you can only date people within a six-month range of your age, I certainly won’t be, but I do think that we all – older and younger – need to be thinking critically about who we are entering into relationships with and why. Sex-columnist Dan Savage suggests that when entering into a relationship with someone who is younger or less experienced than yourself, you should apply the “campsite rule”; you must be sure that you can leave this person in at least as good of an emotional (and physical) state as the one that you found them in. This means no dumping of emotional baggage, no STIs, no unplanned pregnancies; nothing painful that they will likely continue to carry around after your relationship comes to an end. I’m not promising that I’ll be able to only date partners who abide by this rule going forward, but reflecting on the patterns in my relationships has helped me to understand why they felt so challenging and painful; these guys were just too old for me.